Thursday, March 14, 2013

overcoming your fear of the dark or aliens in the cornfield

the only long-legged beasties in here would be alpacas

I grew up in the country and have returned back to living in the country where it is, to borrow a phrase, "darker than the inside of a cow" at night.

This isn't a problem unless you're afraid of the dark.  As far back as I can remember, I was terrified of the dark.

Family gatherings at our house with other kids inevitably led to rounds of hide-and-go-seek in the dark edges of the woods around our large yard, with me camped out as close to the porch light as possible, nearly in tears that something would eat me before anyone found me.

In high school I was often let off of the activities bus after dark, facing a 1/4 mile hike down the pitch black road to my parents' house. These hikes terrified me. I would sing as loud as possible and run as fast as I dared (no, I did not own a flashlight at the time).

I always figured if there really was something scary on the road, a wolf or a bear, I would probably run smack into it, scream my head off then die of a heart attack, nary a scratch on me, my untimely death forever an unsolved mystery.

If you have an intense fear of the dark or aliens in the cornfield or clowns with fangs hiding out below the sewer grates you know exactly what I'm talking about here.

{Luckily, there are very few sewer grates in the country where I live now, as I would not step foot on one for about, oh, 30 years after reading Stephen King's IT.}

So a few years ago {maybe about 20} I decided I was tired of being afraid of the dark.  I didn't like feeling like a spooked cat every time I went outside, or forcing family members to accompany me, or dragging my little indoor dogs with me to venture out into the dark every time I had to retrieve a bag of groceries from the car.

It was a slow process.  And I'm not completely over my fears.  But I am so much farther down that path that I wanted to share a few insights I've learned along the way.

I'm not a fan of "tossing-a-kid-in-the-pool-to-teach-them-to-swim" method. In other words, I didn't lock myself outside every night until I "got over it." I'm more of the "to-eat-an-elephant-take-one-small-bite-at-a-time-and-chew-slowly" kind of a person. 

Being afraid of the dark was a big, bad elephant in my psyche.  Here are some of the small bites I took to get rid of it.

{Note: Only perform the exercises below if you live in a safe place. I'm not advocating going outside alone in the dark if there is a good chance you will be mugged or worse.}

baby bites

Stand outside near your house or other safe place and breathe slowly, smell the fresh air, let your eyes adjust to the dimmer light, and appreciate the beauty of the night.

You can do this right outside your house (if you don't live right under a street light).  It would be best not to be standing by any bright porch lights either, as that will increase the relative darkness outside of the light's beam. Same goes for using a flashlight. I have a Maglite as long as my forearm that could crush an alien, but it will only illuminate what is directly in the beam. When I turn it off and let my eyes adjust, I can see much, much farther. Not with as much detail of course, but much farther away.

Once I click off the light or step away from any streetlights, my eyes start to adjust to the dimness. I notice the wind blowing through the trees, the moon rising above the pasture, Boo with his snowy white fleece lying near the chicken coop.

Repeat the above exercise as often as you can handle.  Try to stand a little farther away from the house each time. Don't force yourself if you're scared.  Set a goal of 3 minutes, then when you can stand that, try 5.  

give yourself a pep talk 

Self-talk isn't just for learning how to be more confident or gathering courage to talk to a cute guy. If you're afraid of the dark or cornfield aliens, you probably already have a long-standing running commentary going on in your head that feeds your fears.  "Oh it's so dark outside... I'm so scared of the dark... I can't see anything past the porch light... I bet there's lions and tigers and aliens out there just waiting to eat me..."

If you catch yourself doing this, stop the soundtrack.  Replace it with a new, more positive one. "It's dark outside but wow, look at those stars!  I'm being so brave coming out here. I bet I will be even more brave tomorrow. I can walk to the barn without turning on my flashlight. Then I'll turn it on to go check on the critters. I can do this!"

{Nobody can hear you, so go ahead and talk corny to yourself. Sometimes you need to cater to your inner-4-year-old.}

Once you can stand near your house, then a bit farther away, and spend several minutes outside alone without having a panic attack, it's time to move on to something more challenging.

stretch yourself to try scarier things

For me, that meant going on longer walks.  In the woods.  Alone.  I allowed myself to carry a flashlight, and to use it for part of the way, but I would also make myself stop and stand still and turn the flashlight off for several minutes before turning it back on.  Occasionally this exercise was preceded by a glass of wine. Or rewarded by a glass when I returned home without being eaten. Or both.

stretch to even bigger, scarier things

I decided I would try renting a small hermitage cabin at Camp Amnicon as a real test of my fear-fortitude. Three days, two nights, all... by... my... self. I had no problems during the day, going for long walks, enjoying the fall colors, reading, writing, taking photos. 

And then the daylight faded.  And then I realized there was no lock on the door of the cabin.  That night, after shoving all the furniture up against the door, I stuck my earplugs in, gave myself a pep talk, pulled the covers over my head and after tossing and turning, eventually fell fitfully asleep.

The second night I figured I better put on my "big girl panties" and take a walk down to the lake after dark. I had to work up the nerve for this exercise all day.  I stretched out my dinner for-ev-er.  I had an extra glass of wine.  I sorted all the items in my suitcase. Finally, I had no more excuses or procrastination tactics left.

I walked all the way down to the lake (about 1/2 mile) with my flashlight on, but on the return trip, turned it off and walked most of the way back by moonlight.  I was amazed at how much I could see when my eyes adjusted. Small noises still startled me, but did not terrify me.  I did not run into any long-legged beasties.

the scariest test of all

For my 30th birthday I tested treated myself to a solo, 3-day canoe trip to the BWCAW.  I had been on canoe trips before, but always, always, with some form of a big macho guy or pack of tough ladies. This time, I was the big macho guy.

Just like with the retreat cabin, the days were idyllic - perfect weather, paddling at my own pace along my own chosen route, stopping to eat and snap photos whenever I chose. I picked spots to camp that I had stayed at before, to give me some sense of comfort and familiarity. I chose a route that required no portaging.

And I made sure I went into the tent and went to bed every night before it got really dark. With my earplugs in. And the sleeping bag pulled over my head.

Yes, I woke up and heard things several times every night which scared me.

No, the Blair Witch did not come and eat me.

Yes, it was scary AND liberating all at the same time.

Since that time I've backpacked parts of the Superior Hiking Trail solo several times with similar results. My favorite memory was when I was camped in Judge C.R. Magney State Park in my ultra-lightweight Hennesey Hammock, which hugs you like a cozy cocoon.

I woke up after I had been asleep for awhile, and wasn't sure what had woken me. The night was quiet, but then I heard an owl hooting. I felt like the universe was hugging me and cradling me in safety. It was the best feeling I've ever felt while alone in the wild.

At a recent dinner party a guest asked, "Aren't you afraid of living out here in the country where it's so dark and you're so far away from anybody?"  I was surprised by the question, as yes, I've always been afraid of the dark.

And then I realized, my response to her of "No, I'm not afraid of living here in the dark," was finally the honest truth.
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
~Scottish Saying

Cheers -


Anonymous said...

You were scared of the dark and you watched The Blair Witch Project?? Crazy :P I watched that about a year ago (at 13 years old) now a year later and I'm to scared to venture into the woods at night. Good for you for concurring your fear!

Victoria Strauser said...

No I absolutely did NOT watch the Blair Witch Project! But most of my friends saw it - it came out right before my trip to the BWCA. So THEY were scared out of their minds FOR me. lol

Jess said...

I'm totally a chicken when it comes to stuff like this too. In fact, I rush to do my evening barn chores before dark if I can manage it.

Victoria Strauser said...

I totally understand!

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